Expressive art therapy

Subject: Mental Health
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 11
Word count: 2800
Topics: Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Schizophrenia


This paper focuses on expressive art therapy. This topic is the center of attention throughout this study. Throughout the article, we will focus on the theories in this field, the definition of expressive art therapy, the role of practitioners in the area, how it can be used to treat some psychological disorders as well as its relation to the other types of art therapy. In brief, expressive art therapy refers to the use of one, two or more of the other art therapies (say dancing, making moves, singing, writing, poetry, music, and drama, etc.) to effect treatment in groups or individuals. The procedure in this context is more focused on feelings and emotions of individual persons or that of a group of persons with the same psychological needs. We will also examine the use of expressive art therapy in helping individuals manage different degrees of anxiety, reduce stress and manage depression disorders. In addition to, we will discuss the effectiveness of expressive art therapy in administering therapist services to clients.


Expressive art therapy is a way of using art (music, poetry, writing, dancing, etc.) to help groups or individuals with psychological needs. However, many scholars have come with differing definitions of the same discipline. Some define it as the use of one or more forms of art in helping individuals attending therapy sessions (Feder & Feder, 1981: Malchiodi, Ed., 2011). Other define it as the use of the technique in context to help others express and experience their feelings (Levine & Levine, Eds., 1998: Hogan, 2001). However, these scholars agree that expressive art therapy is a practical approach in a therapy session.

Art therapy, in general, has a long history f existence. Even before the onset of the 20th century, traditional medicine men and healers used expressive art therapy while performing their rituals. They would dance in circles while chanting some utterances and eventually they would be successful in their treatment. Therefore, we can agree that expressive art therapy has a long history of successful and efficient use in the field of psychology. In the current world, a therapist uses the same idea but in an advanced manner. They recommend some practices such as singing, listening to music, dancing, drawing, writing poems and another form of art to their patients as a way of reducing and eventually treating some psychological disorders such as anxiety.

Since the early 1900’s, practitioners in the field of expressive art therapy (EAT) have advanced this field of knowledge and divided it into two. These subdivisions include the unimodal and the inter-modal EAT. The latter involves the use of various modes of art in effecting treatment in therapy sessions. On the other hand, uni-modal consists of the use of one or specific skill (say writing a poem) as a way of expressing feelings. However, the uni-modal approach is deemed to be ineffective since the client may not be aware of his or her psychological conditions. Therefore, practitioners in the field of psychology argue that the inter-modal EAT is the most effective in the therapy session. However, these professionals believe in different theoretical approaches in determining the most effective EAT therapy for their clients. Therefore, there are many academic foundations under the area of expressive art therapy. A widely used concept under expressive art therapy is the principle of unconscious expression. See the discussion below for more details on this policy.

The Concept of the Expressive Art Therapy

As stated above, many approaches under EAT could be used to affect the treatment process in a therapy session. However, the underlying concept is that the client to a therapy session is unconscious of their state of psychological orientation. This argument brings in the idea of unconscious expression. In other words, a person may not be aware that his/her level of anxiety or depression is wanting. Therefore, he needs a close friend or a family member to tell him or her that his situations need a therapist. This argument explains why a crazy person will always say that ‘I am not mad’ and a drank man will say that he is not drunk. Therefore, practitioners in this field developed the principle of unconscious expression (Hogan, 2001). It helps individuals to become aware of their state through the use of inter-modal arts therapy. For example, some people may have a low self-esteem. Due to this feeling, they cannot stand before a group of people and address them without freaking out. For the same reason, they keep their voice low. A person from the crowd can tell that the person does not dare to address a group. Some people also shake and sweat profusely while addressing a group of persons. However, there is little they can do on their own to contain their situation. Therefore, these persons need a hand from a professional who will guide them in building their self-esteem. The best professional to visit for such a scenario is a therapist.

In the case above, a therapist must design an approach to help his or her client. Let us assume that the client is an individual working in a big corporation and she/he might be promoted to a CEO shortly. However, the client feels that he/she can hardly address a group of persons without shaking and sweating. Therefore, the therapist must prepare his client well so that she/he will be confident by the time he/she is being promoted at the place of work. For this case, the therapist needs to be creative enough and employ the use of expressive art therapy in his intervention plan. First, the therapist should ask the client to write what they feel while addressing a group of people. Similarly, the client should indicate what is his or her highest fear while giving a speech. These two things will help the therapist to ‘read on the same page’ as his client. One of the conditions for a successful therapy session is the client and the therapist to read on the same page (McNiff, 2004). Afterwards, the therapist will read carefully through what the client has written and put himself in her shoes. In this manner, he will be able to recommend the best practices that will help the client boost her self-esteem. At this end, the therapist has already used one of the arts in his intervention process. He has used writing and a way of expressing and experiencing feelings in a therapy session. When the first plan is effective, and the therapist is aware of the client’s situation and state of psychological set-up, he can then proceed to the next stage.

The second stage would probably be taking the client for dancing lessons. The dancing session should at least be with a group of five other recruits. In this way, the client will feel that she fits in the category of dancers. After several lessons where they are taught simple moves, they will be expected to dance as a group and marks assigned to them by a neutral party. The third party should also be a professional in the field of psychology and will act as the judge. After a pure dance, the dance will be secretly recorded but strictly for the therapy session of the involved dancers only. This step is essential as it secures the client’s information as a measure of ethical consideration. After the recording, the tape should be given to each of the dancers. Every dancer will then examine the moves together with his or her therapist. They will then benchmark their findings with those of the judge. The therapist should then focus on identifying the client’s points of strength and let her see them herself. In this manner, the client may find that she dances better than she thought. Similarly, the subjection to a judge while dancing will help her become stronger while performing in front of others. The stability she gains while dancing will be useful in helping her to stop shaking while addressing a group of people. In the long-run, the client will learn a set of few things. First, she may come to know that she looks good before people than she thinks. Similarly, she will notice that her movement is good and there is no need to be nervous. At the same time, she will develop confidence that people like what they do. This awareness will be created from the judge’s report after the dance.

In this manner, the practitioner has used writing, dancing, and movement in the therapy session. Similarly, the intervention process will be efficient as the client will build confidence and high self-esteem in the long-run. Therefore, we can say that the inter-modal expressive art therapy is a practical approach in helping individuals experience, master, understand and express their feelings. Similarly, we can see that use of the different forms of art has helped the therapist to understand the client and establish psychological contact with the client. Once again, a mental connection is vital in the therapy session (Wiener, 1999). It merely means that the therapist can understand his or her client fully and act according to the client’s expectation. In this manner, the patient feels that the therapist understands them best and they can then open up. Afterwards, success at one point in the therapy session leads to the other. In the long-run, the intervention process will be very efficient. A competent practitioner should be able to use the inter-modal EAT to help his/her customers express their feelings as well as master them.

Models for Evaluating the Expressive Art Therapy

There are several models used for the assessment of EAT. These include:

  1. (a)The mode of representation model
  2. (b)Expressive therapies continuum and the
  3. (c)Creative axis model

The Mode of Representation Model

This theory has the base argument that cognitive process in a subsequent event, moving from movement-oriented and kinesthetic expression to use of image and gesture in EAT and lastly the use of linguistics in speech. The model argues that each form of art works well for a given group of people for various reasons. Similarly, the therapeutic process starts with kinesthetic practices such as writing a note on a piece of paper to verbally communicating the idea. Therefore, the therapist should identify their client’s weakness and determine the best form of art that will work well for them. For example, research shows that persons with schizophrenia tend to participate more in movement and dancing rather than in poetry and drama. With this hint, the practitioner in this field should be able to assess the client’s status and identify the best inter-modal combination of arts that will be effective in the therapeutic process.

Other ways of intervention under this model include the use of modeling from clay and designing objects that communicate an idea. This method can be useful especially for small children with a psychological disorder. A teacher can identify these children easily through simple tasks such as asking them to draw something that comes to their mind first. In this way, every child will draw something on paper, and the teacher can go round checking their progress. At the same time, a teacher can observe and notice the changes in the child’s facial expression as they draw their pictures. This information will be essential in the therapeutic process for the child.

Expressive Therapies Continuum

This model focus on understanding how the brain works under different theories of perception, sensory-motor development, self-psychology, cognition and cognitive processes as well as those of psychosocial behavior. Similar to the mode of expression theory, this model states the best form of art for the different persons varies depending on the psychological status of the person. However, this model suggests that the therapeutic process should be categorized into stages and each stage should be defined under a given set of conditions. Therefore, scholars such as Piaget (1951) proposes four steps of psychological experience. These include:

  1. (i) The tactile or kinesthetic level- In this stage, the client is interacting with the various forms of art for exploratory purposes (Feder & Feder, 1981). The person uses the skill such as writing on paper, modeling using clay and other simple tasks in trying to identify their feelings and explore where they are psychological. These activities help them express their feelings to others as well as experience them themselves in a more realistic manner but now with improved awareness. A therapist handling clients at this stage should recommend activities such as drawing and painting as a way of expression.
  2. (ii) Perceptual level- In this step, the person uses a given form of art to communicate his/her idea or emotions. In this step, the person is assumed to have high perceptual capabilities. For instance, the individual can compose a piece of music to communicate his/her emotions, ideas and stand in the social setting (Malchiodi, Ed., 2011).
  3. (iii) Symbolic/cognitive level- at this stage, the client can use logic and high reasoning capacity to derive meaning from a piece of art. For persons to work at this level, they must have high intellectual and thinking capabilities. They can use painting, drawings, and music to express hidden meaning and messages that they feel should be known to others. These clients may involve the activities which actively criticize lousy governance and influential political leaders.
  4. (iv) Creative level- At this point, the client can creatively engage art in expression. It requires the person to meet all the requirements in all the other stages of the ETC model. In this step, the person can use music drawings, models, paintings and other forms of art to come up with new ideas (Feder & Feder, 1981). In this way, they can understand themselves even better. They can use art to solve the problems that were previously disturbing them in a logical and reasoned way.
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Creative- axis Model

This model also stresses on the need for sequential intervention in the therapeutic process. It outlines a set of six steps that therapists should follow to understand the clients and help them express their feelings and emotions effectively. These measures include:

  1. (i) Contact making- in this step, the client is first introduced to the various forms of art and becomes in contact with them.
  2. (ii) Organizing materials- After an individual comes into contact with the types of art and chooses one or a few of them, the second step is to organize the documents required for the process.
  3. (iii) Improvisation- In this level, the client tries each material and set of art through trial and error. They then pick the set that satisfies them the best.
  4. (iv) Determining the central theme- In this step, the client has identified the materials and the best form of art. Then, they define their central theme. If they want to draw, they already know what to draw and why. This step is critical in the therapeutic process (Levine & Levine, Eds., 1998).
  5. (v) Advancing of the central theme- In this level, the client is focused towards developing and improving the central argument. They will shape the form of art so that it best communicates their idea, feelings and emotions.
  6. (vi) Preservation and Presentation- The final stage is presenting the work to the intended target. The target audience may be the person himself, friends, family members or a larger group. After this point, they will preserve the piece of art or distance themselves from it. In whichever way, the therapeutic process will be useful in helping the individual expression and experience their emotions and feelings.


Expressive art therapy is one of the most effective approaches in the field of psychology. It helps individuals to come into contact with their feelings and emotions and then, express them in any form of art that suits them best. Scholars have a differing opinion on which approach is the best for specific psychological disorders. Some suggest that the inter-modal model suites any case the best while others advocate for the person-centered intervention where one form of art will be valid. However, research shows that the multi-modal (inter-modal) model is more effective in various cases. However, a question raises about the best combination of the forms of art that works well for a given psychological condition. In a bid to answer these questions, practitioners have designed models attempting to solve these issues. These models include the mode of representation model, the creative-axis model, and the expressive therapies continuum. All these model agree on that the therapeutic process requires level, stages or steps that help individuals identify the best form of art that best expresses their feelings. For example, persons with schizophrenia respond quickly to dancing, singing, and music compared to acting drama and writing poems. Therefore, the therapist should first understand his/her client before giving any recommendations.

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  1. Feder, E., & Feder, B. (1981). The expressive arts therapies. Prentice Hall.
  2. Hogan, S. (2001). Healing arts: The history of art therapy. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  3. Levine, E., & Levine, S. K. (Eds.). (1998). Foundations of expressive arts therapy: Theoretical and clinical perspectives. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  4. Malchiodi, C. A. (Ed.). (2011). Handbook of art therapy. Guilford Press.
  5. McNiff, S. (2004). Art heals. How creativity cures the soul. Shambhala, London.
  6. Wiener, D. J. (1999). Beyond talk therapy: Using movement and expressive techniques in clinical practice. American Psychological Association.
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